The colours of the Tabernacle
What is the Holocaust?
It depends on who you ask. You can ask Whoopi Goldberg — an actress who adopted a Jewish family name to be more successful (which should say something about her opinion about our people). Last week on TV she explained that the Holocaust was when white people did bad stuff to other white people.
And if this seems to you massive nonsense, wait for the explanation.
When that lady who chose to be called with a Jewish family name tried to explain herself, she told the following story. Suppose she — a Black person — is walking with a Jewish friend and a bad guy of the Ku Klux Klan comes on horseback; in that precise moment, the Jewish friend is safe, while she, because has darker skin, must run away to defend herself. Mrs Goldberg ignores -or pretends to ignore- that the first victim of the Ku Klux Klan was a Jew called Leo Frank, lynched by the mob in 1915 in Marietta, Georgia.
How offensive this so-called explanation is. In these months, the visibly Jewish people, Orthodox Jews, those Jews with a particular type of beard and clothing, are particularly exposed to racist attacks, by the Ku Klux Klan and anti-Semitic gangs with darker-skinned affiliated.
How dares she to say that we Jews are safer?
I keep reading that Whoopi Goldberg has been naive. I find it hard to believe. Whoopi Goldberg is not naive. She is a brilliant actress and a very intelligent woman. She has elevated herself from a drug addict born in a council house to a Hollywood and Broadway superstar. She has published several books, fiction and nonfiction. Like everybody in that business, Whoopi Goldberg knows about public relations. Moreover, she has been working in the film industry since 1965 and knows very well what the Holocaust was.
But for a substantial part of the American Far Left, the one that can afford it going to the movies, the Holocaust was a white-on-white crime. An episode of inner-white relations. Stuff from the past. They don’t care. The serious stuff is elsewhere, they say. The serious crimes are those committed by white racists against black people.
I believe that Whoopi Goldberg has tried to reach out to precisely that kind of audience, a few days after Holocaust Memorial Day. As I said, she is competent in PR matters.
In other words, she minimises and trivialises the greatest crime in human history. She does so to please her public, which expects from her precisely that minimisation, that trivialisation. Go on social media and see how popular she has become, now.
I believe that the time has come to clearly state that this ideology that divides the world into always-oppressive-Whites and always-oppressed-Blacks is a colossal mystification. It is dangerous for minorities like us: Jews, Asian Americans, or Roma, Balkan people, and generally speaking, all those who experience racially motivated persecutions, yet are not dark-skinned. Such an ideology is deeply offensive to Holocaust victims, as we have seen.
And it is also in contrast to Judaism. Let’s look at this week’s Torah portion.
To begin with, a word of caution. This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, has the reputation of being very dull. But it is an undeserved reputation.
At first reading, indeed, it may seem just a list of the materials used to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the portable altar that the Israelites carry with them when wandering through the desert. But hold on. Inside the Mishkan, there are the Tablets of the Law. In the Mishkan God manifests Himself. And this is the reason why the list of the materials is so detailed.
The great Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz explained it very well. We are talking of the spiritual equivalent of the space shuttle. A spaceship must have everything in its place, perfectly functioning, even the most little bolts and screws. Otherwise, it becomes dangerous to get on board and you cannot fly to space. If one single bolt of the space shuttle is out of place, the space shuttle does not start.
Here we understand the insistence on the minor details, little technical information, and the meticulous lists of materials. It’s the equivalent of the space shuttle. It must be perfect!
Furthermore, these different materials can be compared to different types of Jews, different personalities, different ethnic groups in our community.
Now, look at Exodus 25:8 “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them”. This passage, “build Me a sanctuary so I may dwell among them”, explains the reason for which we Jews exist.
I apologise if I appear “ethnocentric”. But you know, I am a Rabbi, and I am convinced that our religion is right. How strange I am.
Our faith says precisely that: that we Jews exist so that the whole of humanity — Jews and non-Jews — can continue to believe that One God exists, somewhere, even if they decide to observe monotheism in another way (Islam, or Christianity. We don’t ask them to become like us). We Jews are like the Mishkan, We remind humanity, who wander in a spiritual desert, that there is One God, whose Law we follow as best as we can.
Let’s get back at this point to this praise of diversity that this seemingly repetitive list of materials inspires us. Some of these materials are problematic. Meaning that we don’t know what they are. They are mentioned in Exodus 25:5. “[T]anned ram skins, dolphin skins”, says the translation, but it is inaccurate. They are not rams and dolphins.
According to the Talmud, these animals no longer exist. They were created and placed in the desert so that the Israelites could use them to build the Tabernacle. These mysterious animals were created to ensure that the presence of God continues to dwell amid humanity.
I hear you asking: whaaaat? And let me reassure you. This is a metaphor.
The Rabbis in the Talmud read this Biblical passage, a list of materials used to build the holiest object in the world, as a metaphor. This metaphor teaches us something very profound. It teaches the value of diversity.
It teaches that the Jewish people, this portable altar for humanity we belong to, is composed of different people, different ethnicities, different cultures, and different colours.
Indeed, the Rabbis teach that the skins of these mysterious animals -improperly translated as “rams and dolphins”- have an important feature: their colour. They are colours — the Rabbis explain — that the human eye cannot understand, that the human word cannot describe. They are colours that change constantly, And these colours are in contact with the Divine.
This is beautiful praise of diversity and an encouragement to welcome the diverse: if we meet a Jew who does not match the colours we expect, we ought to remember that God has created that Jew that way, and that Jew, like us, is part of this magnificent Tabernacle that is the people of Israel.
I don’t know if it ever happened to you to find yourselves in the central street of Jerusalem, Ben Yehuda Street, and to look around. When I am there, I’ll admit, I am full of admiration. Admiration for the diversity of complexion, of colour, of accents: Indian Jews, North African, Hungarian Jews, Israeli Jews… all united by this mysterious thing, “being Jewish”, so difficult to summarise and explain.
Being a religious person, I connect this “thing” of “being Jewish” to a Divine Revelation that happened some millennium ago. I believe that we are all Jews, despite the different colours of our skins, because we all spiritually descend from those persons who were there when Moses received the Law, twice,
This is what I believe, and you’re allowed to disagree anyway. After all, why have a Rabbi if you cannot disagree? But anyway, even if you do not believe in the Divine Revelation, that admirable and inspiring unity in diversity is there for everyone to see.
As I said a few minutes ago, this extraordinary diversity and, at the same time, this unity, is in profound contrast to the ideology professed by that lady who chose for herself the name of Mrs Goldberg. In fact, she believes in a perennial struggle between good Blacks and evil Whites. According to her, the Holocaust was a crime committed by Whites against other Whites. It was not serious and tragic like the crimes committed by White racists against Black people. It was not the worse crime in human history. Note how in her retractations she, that supposedly naive actress and writer, carefully chose the wording to avoid mentioning the uniqueness of the Holocaust
The marvellous diversity of the people of Israel, the vitality, and the unity of the Jewish people are, of course, the polar opposite of the project of extermination of the Jewish people, which was the Holocaust. Israel is many things, but it is also the Jewish response to the Holocaust. As I say, in the Diaspora “never again the Holocaust” is a prayer, But from Israel is a warning. The existence of Israel has permanently changed the way we Jews respond to antisemitism.
Perhaps the time has come for those people from within the Jewish world who pursue this latest ideological fashion, “woke” I think it’s called, to do something truly revolutionary. Open the Torah and the commentaries, and start studying, with other Jews, as we Jews of every colour do, you know: just from a couple of millennia.
In other words, as the Rabbis say, go and study!
And work for the unity of the people of Israel instead of introducing further divisions based on skin colour. This ideology that fetishises the colour of the skin leads to offending the memory of the victims of the Shoah. I cannot imagine a more serious betrayal of Judaism.
This is not to say that we should give up on inclusion. Quite the opposite. Making our communities really pluralistic, really similar to the Mishkan is a moral imperative and I know there is a lot of work to do, and we are not always doing our best.
I know from personal experience. I have received racist abuses from other Jews. Politically progressive jews; and they say we don’t get irony. I have been called a gangster and other terms from the racist anti-Italian repertoire. In a Talmud class that was supposed to discuss the concept of boundaries, we were given an article of the New York Times that described the New York Syrian Jewish community (refugees and children of refugees) as a bunch of backward new money, with their golden amulets on their hairy chest, suspicious of anyone outside their community and obviously racist. I was the only Sephardi in the room. I had to endure two hours of crass anti-Sephardi racism and of course praise of the blasé cosmopolitan progressive New York Ashkenazi post-Zionist intellectual world.
So you see, I know something about the challenges of inclusion.
But I also know that nothing good can be achieved if replace Judaism with the latest ideological vogue. We are Jews not because our identity gives us a place around the table where Critical Race Theory is discussed. We are Jews because of that commandment, to build a tabernacle, and expression of the unity of our people so that God will continue to dwell among humanity.
Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue 5 February 2022 / 4 Adar A’ 5772 Parashat Terumah